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The Dubai Approach

Dubai, the largest city of the United Arab Emirates, has turned from an overheated expanse of desert to the tourist mecca of the Gulf in just a few decades, unlike its neighbouring cities. The emirate has emerged as one of the most iconic cities of the world and this metamorphosis can be largely ascribed to the ingenuity of the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his predecessors. Opposite to the hearsay, Dubai’s economy isn’t oil, rather it is tourism-oriented. As per the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index 2019, Dubai tops the list with travellers spending USD $553 on an average day.1 Here’s a brief account of Dubai’s journey so far to becoming the most visited city in the world as we delve deeper into the policies adopted by its rulers.

Retrospective Linkage
Technically, it all began when the then ruler Al Maktoum established an entrepôt with no taxation policy to beef up imports and exports in 1901. And that heralded the rise of Dubai as a trading hub in the Arab region. In 2019, wholesale and retail trade had a lion’s share in Dubai’s GDP, more than 23%.2 Being apprised of the paucity of oil, Sheikh used the revenue from trading activities to build infrastructure. He followed infrastructure-oriented policies from day one. The pearl industry, mainly found in Dubai Creek, was also a major contributor to Dubai’s economy at that time. Sheikh continued with the development of architecture and later in 1950s, the first hotel and airport were constructed in the city. Now mull over how onerous it would be to build a concrete structure on vast stretches of sand considering that desert sand is too fine and smooth, therefore unsuitable for buildings. As there is only sand to hold the building, it relies on friction.3 Towards the end of the 1950s, Sheikh commissioned John Harris, a British architect, to develop the first master plan of the city. Who would’ve known that it would be the dawn of relentless architectural projects! In the 1960s, Dubai became the largest centre for gold trade in the world. In this day and age, Dubai is crowned as the City of Gold. The year of 1966 was a game changing moment in the history of Dubai when oil was discovered in Dubai’s Fateh oil field. Sheikh knew that these oil reserves would last only a few decades and because he possessed great savoir-faire, he traded oil, invested that money in infrastructure and built a city attractive enough to lure people to come, stay, and cash their paychecks. Today less than 1% of Dubai’s GDP is from oil – at one time it was over half.4 Later, there was a massive influx of migrant workers from Middle East and East Asia. More than 90% of the residents of Dubai are non-emiratis.5 Implication — UAE is a tax-free country, therefore a 100% tax-free salary is a sweetener for immigrants. During the Gulf War in the 1990s, Kuwait and Bahrain moved their businesses to Dubai. The rise in oil prices during the war boosted Dubai’s trade. And then one structure was built after the other, but there was no end to the architectural ambition.

A Hub of Innovation or Exploitation?
Everyone who stepped foot in the city has been flabbergasted by the innovatively designed skyscrapers, opulent malls and spectacular coastline developments and all of them connected by a monorail. The tallest man-made structure Burj Khalifa, world’s largest adventure park IMG Worlds of Adventure, tallest hotel Gevora, automated and driverless metro, fastest police car, busiest airport for international passengers are just snippets of what this City of Superlatives has to offer. As Forbes put it, if there is any city in the world that takes shopping malls seriously, it’s Dubai 6 The flashy Dubai malls build a panache seldom seen anywhere else around the world, enticing shopaholics to splurge and thereby increase the inflow of foreign cash in the economy. Stepping into any mall in the city is a unique experience in itself. If you’re tired of shopping, you can experience other joys in ‘The Dubai Mall’ including the world’s largest aquarium, aquatic zoo and indoor skiing slopes, catching a glimpse of winter in the sweltering heat outside. You can get lost, but you will never get enough! There’s still more to do. Bringing nature to the desert, Dubai has created the world’s largest flower and butterfly gardens by importing thousands of flies and flowers. Then there’s the largest man-made island in the world! Palm Jumeirah, the creative mind of Sheikh Mohammed who sketched out the efficient palm shape to carve out the maximum amount of beachfront, is an artificial archipelago adding significantly to the urban design of Dubai. The novelty shape of the beachfront homes is a winner formula and the plots were sold out in two days of completion.7

Although the façade of this emirate is glittering, when you scratch the surface, you’ll find a scorched, soulless land of labour abuses and yawning inequality. Most of these grandiose and unique skyscrapers are outcomes of exploitation of immigrant labour; they hide the trampling of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who worked night and day to build them. With increasing cosmopolitan areas, these migrant labourers were forced to live on the periphery of the city they built with their own hands. The reality of the lives of migrant laborers is not simply characterized by harsh working conditions, but injustices that deny this portion of the population basic human rights. They are discriminated against in terms of exploitation too. A 2015 study by researchers from The University of Tennessee posits that 64.6% of the employed non-nationals in the country are working for the private sector compared with 7.4% of employed nationals.8 This dynamic is very apparent in Dubai. The Dubai International Airport, owned by the Dubai government, is fully employed by Emirati nationals, which is indicated by the traditional Emirati garb. However, once you leave the airport and get in a cab or enter a mall, you’ll realise that the private sector is dominated by the migrant population. When dealing with the Immigration Office or other divisions of the government, it is patently visible that all employees are Emirati nationals. A 2018 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sheds light on the suppression of basic human rights and the exploitation of migrant workers.9

In the Gulf
Dubai’s neighbours including Saudi Arabia have started emulating its model by diversifying into non-oil sectors. Dubai now is poised to be the growth leader among the six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with GDP expanding 3 percent or more in 2019, according to a survey by Bloomberg.10 Saudi Arabia, which outperformed Dubai in growth in five out of the six years before 2016, remains a laggard. This situation can be encapsulated as John C Maxwell, an American author, famously stated, “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” Moreover, other Arabian Peninsula cities, notably, Muscat and Doha have not exploited their geographical position as successfully as Dubai did; Dubai has made efficient use of its enviable commercial geography. In fact, wealthy countries such as Iraq depend heavily on oil till date, but are not as developed as Dubai. Dubai also markets itself as the liberal-Hong-Kong-of-the-Middle-East.11

However, it is viciously sinking in debt funds as per a Forbes report.12 Dubai has a history of borrowing funds from its neighbours. Because of a dearth of its own resources, it has borrowed money mainly from Abu Dhabi, but from other countries as well. Even sand was borrowed from Australia for the construction of Burj Khalifa.13 According to Bloomberg, no other market in the Persian Gulf comes close to replicating the performance of Dubai’s real estate market.14 Having said that, the business hub of the Arab Peninsula relies on the deep-pockets of its neighbours. Thus, Dubai is the quintessence of a parasite as well as an opportunist.

A decade ago, the city had suffered a near-calamity crisis when the government defaulted on debts. [UAE is an autocracy and so is Dubai, hence the entire revenue of major sectors is in the hands of the government. Implication — all monetary decisions are taken at the behest of the government.] However, the bank of Abu Dhabi came as a Messiah and revived its economy. But it is feared that history might repeat itself and Dubai will be hemmed in by the financial crisis again.15 Since every cloud has a silver lining, Dubai hopes that Expo 2020 (to be hosted by Dubai itself) will have a knock-on effect for its government and their ability to repay the debts they owe, and will bring in the much needed foreign exchange. Ergo, Expo 2020 has been deferred until next year in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.


This approach may appear lucrative and innovative, but comes with consequences and favours wrong deeds. By hook or by crook, Dubai is by and large a remarkable success. According to the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index 2019, Dubai has ranked as the fourth most visited city globally. After all, every big city has its dark secrets.16 But is success at the expense of others a success at all?

By Arshita Jain
Senior Secondary Student, Modern school Barakhamba Road

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